“The Grand Budapest Hotel” has too much going on.
It’s not a criticism. It’s just that we Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Moonrise Kingdom”) fans are used to being afforded time to soak in his careful composition. To appreciate fully those wide shots of people sitting dejectedly, dwarfed by colorful surroundings.
“Budapest Hotel,” a vibrant, cheeky throwback to 1930s caper comedies, contains the same high degree of craftsmanship as his other films. There’s just more of it. The movie is almost constantly in motion, making it impossible to catch everything in one sitting.
It’s a nice problem to have as a viewer: a film that necessitates a second viewing because it is too rich rather than confusing.
In between its chase scenes, “Budapest” tracks a luxury eastern European hotel as it goes, over three decades, from Baroque to aesthetically broke. The celebratory pinks, purples and reds of the hotel’s early ’30s heyday fade into a drab, airport-lounge orange in the 1960s, following fascist and then communist takeovers.
It’s always a fun game to try to isolate Anderson’s influences. But citing influences in “Budapest” would take all day. They start with Stanley Kubrick (floor-to-ceiling lobby shots) and run to Preston Sturges (wit, chase scenes) and the makers of the “Rocky & Bullwinkle” cartoons (sculpted facial hair, mania).
Anderson shows obvious regard for his cinematic forebears but also a playful determination to experiment with form.
The hotel sets were erected in an empty department store in Görlitz, Germany, which stood in for a spa village in Anderson’s fictional Republic of Zubrowka. The great pains that production designer Adam Stockhausen took to stay authentic to era show in the ’30s version of the hotel lobby, replete with chandeliers, elaborate woodwork and an air of decadence. Stockhausen’s attention to detail also is evident in a scene set 30 years later in the now-crumbling hotel’s bathhouse. Luxury under the Soviet regime apparently meant stark and redolent of mildew.
All vérité vanishes when the camera moves outside to mountain backdrops, shot using miniatures, that resemble the Disneyland Matterhorn more than the real one. This purposeful fakeness extends to the film’s kinetic chase scenes, which incorporate stop-motion animation, a la Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and to actors’ all-over-the-place accents. Harvey Keitel’s ’30s eastern European jailbird sounds like he just arrived from the mean streets of ’70s New York.
Anderson saves his reverence for the film’s underlying vein of sadness – a mourning for ideas of beauty and luxury destroyed by war. Anderson distills the lost cultural treasures of World War II – the stolen artworks, the bombed-out architecture – into one hotel and one man, the Grand Budapest’s ’30s concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes).
Though arguments could be made for Bill Murray’s and Jason Schwartzman’s characters in “Rushmore,” Gustave H. is the best Anderson character ever. Fiennes’ performance, by all rights, should spark a McConaissance-like renewed awareness of the actor’s mad skills.
Fastidious but also bathed in cologne, Gustave embodies propriety and excess at once. He teaches his staff the secrets to great hospitality while also leading by example: He beds the hotel’s richest, oldest female guests, including 84-year-old dowager countess Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, in heavy, terrifically done makeup). It’s all part of the turn-down service.
Though this dandy loves fine things as much as his guests do, Gustave also is rather earthy (if never quite down to earth). He curses with abandon and details his unusual sexual conquests without shame.
When put to the test, this seemingly frivolous man shows backbone and great loyalty. Underlying all his behaviors is a sadness that comes from knowing the fascist thuggery on the rise in Europe eventually will win over grace and beauty.
That Fiennes can invest Gustave with a melancholic streak is expected. Less expected is his gift for one-liners. Fiennes finds a sweet spot between haughtiness and vulgarity that reaps comedy gold.
He delivers Gustave’s often off-color zingers in the same businesslike tone he uses when Gustave educates new hotel lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) about hotel etiquette.
Fiennes deserves an Oscar nomination – at least – for this performance. He also showed a light touch as Charles Dickens in the recent “The Invisible Woman.” Fiennes seems intent on reminding people that Bradley Cooper is not the only intense, ice-blue-eyed actor who can do comedy and drama equally well.
Revolori, a winning teenage actor, matches Fiennes’ clipped ’30s-comedy delivery – a style that travels easily from hotel lobby to outdoor chase scenes. When one is being chased, information must be delivered quickly.
The sudden death of Madame D., who was quite fond of Gustave, casts suspicion on the concierge. Her relatives, including villainous son Dmitri (a too-broad Adrien Brody), do not like that Madame D. willed an important Renaissance painting to Gustave.
Gustave increases suspicion by acting semi-criminally, with Zero his accomplice. Zero’s friendship with Gustave eventually will benefit him, as the older Zero (F. Murray Abraham) will explain to a writer (Jude Law) in a ’60s-set sequence at the hotel.
Gustave is on the run from the authorities and Dmitri’s henchman (Willem Dafoe, looking very “Shadow of the Vampire”), leading to lots of exuberant chase scenes on motorcycles and skis. Gustave and Zero also will have run-ins with the fascists overtaking Zubrowka.
When “Budapest” stops to take a breath during this section, it follows the budding romance of Zero and Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), who works at Zubrowka’s finest bakery, Mendl’s.
This story line indulges Anderson’s most twee instincts, seeming to exist to provide opportunities to show Mendl’s pretty pink boxes and delivery truck.
We care about Zero in relation to Gustave. So scenes with Agatha and Zero without Gustave do not matter.
Anderson’s films, for all their inventiveness and humor, rarely offer a corresponding emotional depth. What little depth “Budapest” holds rests with Gustave and the lost world he represents. When he is absent from the screen, the farce loses its grounding force.